JOE Barends, the new head of a secondary cooperative in Lynedoch outside Stellenbosch called the Stellenbosch Farmer Production Support Unit, is not someone who lets the grass grow under his feet.

Mr Barends facilitated the creation of the Stellenbosch Farmer Production Support Unit (FPSU) out of six primary cooperatives over the past few months when he saw the potential of the area.

Inspired by the European Union DIVAGRI research project that is trialling seven biobased technologies to improve farmer productivity in Lynedoch, he jumped at the opportunity to unite the farmers and build an agricultural training and production hub in Stellenbosch.

The Stellenbosch Farmer Production Support Unit consists of five primary cooperatives: the Future AgroProcessing Primary Cooperative, the Pinehaven Cross Primary Cooperative, the Lynedoch Women and Youth Primary Cooperative, Green Pastures Primary Cooperative and Wobomi Primary Cooperative.

The main aim for these small farmers in the six primary cooperatives is to collectively grow, process and sell vegetables together in the secondary cooperative so that they can increase their profits. Currently, small farmers grow their vegetables individually, each bearing the cost of production by themselves.

“This makes them price takers rather than price makers in the marketplace, with the buyers able to pick and choose from suppliers, beating their prices down,” says Mr Barends.

Another aim is to farm in a way that is not harmful to the natural environment but promotes a circular bio-based economy. To achieve this, the FPSU is working with the DIVAGRI research project to trial some technological solutions that make use of waste products on the farm to add further value.

Some of the technologies that will be trialed at the Lynedoch site include an artificially constructed wetland, a clay-based drip irrigation system and a biokiln that burns waste products and creates biochar for improving the nutrition of the soil.

It is also the aim of the FPSU to take up the challenge laid down by the DIVAGRI research project to develop a Knowledge Sharing Centre on site where small farmers throughout the Stellenbosch Municipality can be trained in some of these emerging technologies that are expected to not only increase production but also improve the ecological health of farming systems.

“We would like this FPSU site to be a practical training centre where farmers from all over the Winelands can come and be trained in a hands-on way with the new bio-based technologies,” says Mr Barends.  This follows many agricultural colleges not having practical hands-on training for their students.

Currently, Mr Barends is running a project onsite at Lynedoch with 40 unemployed people who were selected from the municipal database. They are being taught how to cultivate crops in growbags using a drip irrigation system that utilises less water than irrigation systems. In November they will begin trialing the DIVAGRI technologies when it is moved from Stellenbosch University’s  Welgevallen Experimental Farm.

“Small farmers not only need to work together to become economically more viable, they also need to start using smart technologies that make use of less natural resources,” says Mr Barend.